“The Gallant Pedestrian That You Are”

April 5, 1879

Thomas Nast

“The Gallant Pedestrian That You Are”

Anglo-American Relations; Sports and Recreation; Symbols, American Eagle; Symbols, British Lion;

No 'People' indexed for this cartoon.

Great Britain;

No caption

The placement of Thomas Nast's full-page cartoon on the cover of Harper's Weekly (at a time when no newspaper had a sports page) is indicative of the tremendous popularity of marathon walking and running, which was then at its peak.

Marathon races date back to ancient times, but developed in England in the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries as an organized spectator sport.  The first large-scale, organized footrace in the United States occurred on April 24, 1835, at Union Race Course in Long Island, where a crowd of 40,000 watched Henry Stannard become the first American to run 10 miles in under an hour.  One of the record-breaking runners during the Antebellum years was Louis "Deerfoot" Bennett, a Seneca Indian from a reservation in western New York.

The sport of long-distance walking (pedestrianism) gained prominence through the exploits of Edward Payson Weston.  In 1861, Weston announced that he would walk from Boston to Washington, D. C., in ten days' time, and attend the presidential inauguration of Abraham Lincoln.  He arrived on March 4 at 4 p.m., just hours too late for the event.  In 1867, Weston gained more publicity for himself and the sport by walking 1226 miles from Portland, Maine, to Chicago in 26 days.  Cheering spectators lined the route and reporters covered his trek.  

The popularity of distance walking and running reached its high point in the United States during the decade of 1875-1885.  Across the country, big cities and small towns alike hosted races for local amateurs or traveling professionals which were based on time (24, 28, or 72 hours, or six days) or distance (25, 50, or 100 miles).  

Although men dominated the sport in the nineteenth century, women also participated in separate competitions.  In 1879, a Mrs. Anderson walked 685 miles in 112 1/2 days on a track at Brooklyn's Mozart Gardens.  In Chicago, Exilde La Chapelle walked 750 miles in 125 days.  In winning six-day races, Bertha von Burg covered 372 miles on a New York City track, while Mae Belle Sherman lasted 337 miles on a San Francisco track.

Weston had pioneered the six-day race, which reached "mania" status in 1878-1879 when a British nobleman, Sir John Astley, sponsored five international races for lucrative prize money and a championship gold and silver belt inscribed with the words "Long Distance Champion of the World" (which the British lion carries in the cartoon).  These were "go-as-you-please" matches in which the contestants could walk, run, or rest whenever they desired, as long as they followed the official rules.  Laps were counted by three scorekeepers for each man and the number posted on a large blackboard for the spectators to follow.  Most participants only rested for a few hours of each day.  

The Astley Belt contest was one of the top sporting events of the period, attracting huge crowds, loud brass bands, enthusiastic press coverage, and substantial betting.  The first race took place in London's Agricultural Hall, beginning at 1 a.m. on Monday, March 18, 1878.  It pitted 17 Englishmen against the undefeated American champion, Irish-born Daniel O'Leary from Chicago, who in 1875 had become the first man to cover 500 miles during a six-day marathon.  O'Leary won the first race with 520 miles in 139 hours.

The second race was held in the fall of 1878 before capacity crowds totaling over 30,000 at Madison Square Garden in New York City.  O'Leary bested Irish-born New Yorker John Hughes, 403 to 310 miles, to take home the $10,000 first prize, plus a portion of the gate and side-bets, and money from later promotional appearances. 

The eagerly anticipated third race, which is the subject of Nast's cover cartoon, began at 1 a.m. on March 10, 1879, at Madison Square Garden.  Only four men contested this race:  champion O'Leary; two other Americans, John Ennis and Charles Harriman; and an Englishman, Charles Rowell.  Public interest was so intense that hourly bulletins were posted in the city's barrooms, barber shops, cigar stores, grocery stores, and hotels, and the newspapers provided daily headlines.  It was evident from the start that O'Leary was ill, but he still managed to cover 215 miles before dropping out.  Afterward, he denied that he had been drugged, but retired for a number of years.  

On the final day, some of the boisterous crowd broke onto the track to taunt Rowell, the Englishman who led the race.  The two remaining American contestants, Ennis and Harriman, immediately informed the audience that they would quit if Rowell's pace was interrupted.  They then clasped hands and ran a lap in solidarity with the Englishman, as the crowd roared its approval.  At 8:45 p.m. that Saturday, Harriman stopped after his 450th mile.  A half-hour later, Rowell ended with his 500th mile to thunderous applause.  Ennis continued until his 474th mile, amazingly able (after six grueling days) to sprint the last mile in less than seven minutes, to the delight of the crowd.  Along with the championship belt, Rowell (the British lion in this cartoon) got $20,000, while Ennis took $11,800, and Harriman, $8,200.  As Rowell left the stadium, draped in an American flag, he was formally challenged by Edward Payson Weston.

Unfortunately, Rowell later stepped on a nail and thus sat forlornly in the audience during the fourth match which began at London's Agricultural Hall on June 16, 1879.  Weston won the event by covering 550 miles over the six days.  The fifth and final Astley Belt contest began on September 22, 1879, in Madison Square Garden with a more truly international cast of challengers, including a Canadian, a German, and Jamaican-born Frank Hart, the black American champion from Boston and a protégé of Daniel O'Leary.  A crisis occurred when an ill Rowell, suffering from convulsions, was forced to rest in his tent for six hours.  He rejoined the race, though, and when he reached his 500th mile on Saturday at 1 p.m., the crowd cheered and the band played "God Save the Queen."  In the end, Rowell recaptured the belt with 530 miles, to 515 and 500 miles for the second- and third-place finishers.

Distance walking and running remained popular in later years, but lost stature against the phenomenon of bicycle racing in the 1890s and the rise of spectator team sports.  The six-day marathons eventually died, but in the meantime records continued to be broken.  In 1880, Rowell, Hart, and "Blower" Brown each reached 550 miles in separate six-day contests.  In 1884, Englishman George Littlewood completed 623 3/4 miles.  In 1909, 71-year-old Edward Payson Weston again captured the nation's attention by walking nearly 4,000 miles from New York City to San Francisco in 104 days.  His death in 1929 at the age of 90 was headline news around the world.  It was estimated that he had covered more than 100,000 miles in pedestrian competitions over his long career. 

The poem under the cartoon, in honor of Charles Rowell's victory, is from Gilbert and Sullivan's popular operetta, "H. M. S. Pinafore":

"For he might have been a Roosian,

A French, or Turk, or Proosian, 

Or perhaps A-mer-i-can; 

But in spite of all temptations

To belong to other nations, 

He remains an Englishman,

He remains an Englishman."

Robert C. Kennedy

“The Gallant Pedestrian That You Are”
June 17, 2024

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